From Sentencing Law & Policy:
The title of this post is the title of this terrific synopsis by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUS blog of a big death penalty ruling handed down today. Here is the start of the post along with links to the looong ruling the post discusses:
Carrying out a direct order of the Supreme Court, a federal judge in Georgia made a lengthy new study of a 21-year-old murder case but then ruled Tuesday that a Savannah, Ga., man had not proved that he is innocent of killing a police officer in a fast-food restaurant parking lot. In a 172-page opinion (issued in two parts, found here and here), U.S. District Judge William T. Moore, Jr., ruled that it would be unconstitutional to execute an innocent person, but went on to rule that Troy Anthony Davis “is not innocent.” Treating the case as an unusual one procedurally, Judge Moore said it appeared that he was acting as a fact-gatherer directly for the Supreme Court, so any appeal by Davis may have to go directly to the Justices. He sent a copy of his ruling to the Supreme Court.
(NOTE TO READERS: The judge’s legal and constitutional analysis of the evidence and the issues begins on numbered page 91, which is page 29 of Part II. Up to that point, the opinion is a recitation of the evidence and the history of Davis’s challenges to his conviction.)
A year ago, the Supreme Court sent Davis’s latest challenge — one filed directly with the Justices — to the District Court in Georgia “for hearing and determination.” The order said that the lower court should “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis's] innocence.” The Justices’ unsigned order, issued over the dissent of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, was apparently approved on a 6-2 vote (Justice Sonia Sotomayor took no part in it.) It was a highly unusual action because the Court does not often order fact-finding by a trial-level court; it more often pronounces the law and then leaves it to lower courts to implement such a ruling. The dissenters called the action an “extraordinary step — one not taken in nearly 50 years.”
Judge Moore closed his opinion by noting that he had carried out the Supreme Court’s mandate by holding a hearing and now ruling on Davis’s habeas challenge. “This Court,” he wrote, “concludes that executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution” — a point long hinted at but not yet specifically decided by the Supreme Court. However, the judge went on to reject Davis’s claim of innocence, summing up: “The evidence produced at the hearing on the merits of Mr. Davis’s claim of actual innocence and a complete review of the record in this case does not require the reversal of the jury’s judgment that Troy Anthony Davis murdered City of Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail on August 19, 1989.”
In a footnote, the judge added that “while the state’s case may not be ironclad, most reasonable jurors would again vote to convict Mr. Davis of Officer MacPhail’s murder. A federal court simply cannot interpose itself and set aside the jury verdict in this case absent a truly persuasive showing of innocence. To act contrarily would wreck complete havoc on the criminal justice system.” (The judge may have meant “wreak,” not “wreck.”)